Afghan peace conference: India shares table with Taliban
India, among other regional nations, is part of the Russia-hosted peace talks in Moscow to end the war in Afghanistan.
India is participating in a Russia-sponsored peace conference with Taliban in a significant reassessment of its position on talks with the armed group that has waged an armed rebellion since 2001.
New Delhi has sent former Indian envoys to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amar Sinha and TCA Raghavan respectively, to attend the conference at the “non-official level”.
“India supports all efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan that will preserve unity and plurality, and bring security, stability and prosperity to the country,” India’s foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said.
“India’s consistent policy has been that such efforts should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled and with participation of the Government of Afghanistan,” he said.
Moscow said it had invited representatives from the United States as well as Iran, China, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
A five-member Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of its political council in Qatar, is also attending the talks in Moscow.
The US has said it will send a representative from its embassy in Moscow to attend Friday’s talks.
India’s participation is a stark departure from its earlier position as it has never engaged in formal talks with the Taliban.
Foreign policy analyst Manoj Joshi, who represents the Observer Research Foundation, said the talks in Moscow come at a time when the Taliban have steadily fortified their control in the Afghan countryside.
“Essentially, India has bowed to the inevitable since the US, Russia, China and even the Afghan government have all indicated one way or the other that they are ready to talk with the Taliban,” Joshi told Al Jazeera.
“New Delhi is confident that the host Russians would not do anything which would be against India’s interests. Also, in participating in these talks, India takes the view that since the Afghan government, through the High Peace Council, is present, there should be no problem,” he added.
The High Peace Council (HPC) is a government body responsible for reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
“Element of seriousness”
The Russian diplomatic efforts come weeks after newly appointed US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, held talks with the Taliban in Qatar.
He will visit Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar from November 8 to 20 in an effort to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.
“There has been a shift in US policy – earlier, even though the previous administration spoke about a negotiated settlement, there was no concrete direction,” Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“For the first time now, the US is talking directly to the Taliban, which is also acceptable to the Taliban, as this was their demand from the outset. There has been some movement.
“There is an element of seriousness from all sides.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has previously proposed talks with the Taliban, saying it could be recognised as a political party if it accepted a ceasefire and accepted the country’s constitution.
The Taliban, which has been fighting the US-led forces since being thrown out of power in 2001, has generally refused to negotiate with the Afghan government.
“Although the Afghan government is preparing to negotiate, many people are now blaming the government, particularly President Ghani,” said Hekmatullah Azamy, acting head of Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul.
“They argue that successful peace talks mean a new interim administration which will be unacceptable to President Ghani,” Azamy told Al Jazeera.
In the meeting on Friday, members of the HPC said they are ready for talks with the Taliban without any preconditions.
“The future of Taliban is a matter of serious concern for the group – both at the leadership level as well as for its rank and file,” Azamy said.
“Taliban often questions whether they are ready to become a 100 percent political group and whether they can survive mainstream politics.
“Moreover, would the rank and file follow the leaders or will they join groups like Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group).”
Taliban officials have set the withdrawal of all foreign forces, release of prisoners and the lifting of a ban on travel as preconditions for any peace talks.
India had earlier refused to support a 2007 initiative of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai to engage the “good Taliban” in the peace process.
“Some make a distinction between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ – I don’t, because I’ve seen the Taliban, they have only one cult – the cult of violence,” then foreign minister of India Pranab Mukherjee had said.
The Taliban has inflicted a heavy toll on Afghan security forces in renewed attacks in recent weeks. At least 20 army soldiers were killed at a border outpost in western Afghanistan on Tuesday.
More than 17 years after the US-led forces invaded the country and removed the Taliban, the war is intensifying. In recent months, violence has continued with mounting casualties on both sides.
There have been several attempts in recent years to broker a settlement between the western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban without much success.
“India’s representatives are attending the talks in Moscow as part of efforts to bring peace and stability to the region. It’s not switching tack but evolving assessment of ground realities,” said a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker in New Delhi on condition of anonymity.
“All efforts towards making peace, whether the US-led talks or Russia-led talks, will help. We will be there to observe,” he added.
According to Azamy, India is one of the important stakeholders enjoying friendly ties with Kabul. He says it is vital for New Delhi to be a part of peace talks, especially with the Taliban involved.
“Without India’s involvement, the outcome of peace talks could upset them or make them feel insecure. They want to be engaged and aware of the developments,” he said.
India has forged a close partnership with Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. It has engaged in infrastructure and welfare projects in the war-torn country worth millions of dollars earning goodwill from Afghans.
It has also provided training to Afghan military personnel as well as donating military hardware as part of its policy to deepen military ties.
“By attending the Taliban talks, India can get a voice in the outcome of the peace process, where it has none at present. It will try to coordinate with the Afghan government which it supports strongly,” analyst Joshi told Al Jazeera.
“Simultaneously, the process enables it to build ties with the Taliban, even if somewhat late in the day. India cannot ignore the fact that ground realities ensure that the Taliban will be in the Afghan governing structure in some form or the other.”
With additional reporting by Asad Hashim from Islamabad, Pakistan